Thursday, 2 July 2015

Review | Darkhaven by A.F.E. Smith


by A.F.E. Smith

My Rating:

Ayla Nightshade never wanted to rule Darkhaven. But her half-brother Myrren – true heir to the throne – hasn’t inherited their family gift, forcing her to take his place.

When this gift leads to Ayla being accused of killing her father, Myrren is the only one to believe her innocent. Does something more sinister than the power to shapeshift lie at the heart of the Nightshade family line?

Now on the run, Ayla must fight to clear her name if she is ever to wear the crown she never wanted and be allowed to return to the home she has always loved.

I received a copy of Darkhaven from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I'll be honest, it was Darkhaven's gorgeous cover that first drew me in. Just look at it. Isn't it beautiful?

I wasn't sure what to expect going into this. It's been so long since I immersed myself in high fantasy that I've become a little intimidated by the genre; sometimes I find it difficult to grasp entire new worlds and remember everyone's strange names, but I've been eager to get back into high fantasy because I loved it so much when I was younger. In Darkhaven I found a good ol' fashioned high fantasy meets whodunnit, and the combination of the fantastical with a murder mystery is a lot of fun!

The Nightshades have ruled Darkhaven for years, for they possess the ability to transform into great and powerful creatures. Overlord Florentyn Nightshade has the ability to turn into a firedrake, and given that he can literally burn villages to the ground if he wants to it's no wonder than no one dares question his rule. No one, that is, aside from his daughter, Ayla. Though Ayla possesses the gift to change, the creature she transforms into is a peculiar hybrid of fantastical creatures due to her mother being only human. Her older, half-brother Myrren, on the other hand, cannot change at all despite being a full-blooded Nightshade. Florentyn is embarrassed by both his children, but as Ayla is the one child who can change it is she he intends to bestow the crown upon after his death. Ayla, however, cannot bear to take that away from her beloved brother.

Then Florentyn is brutally murdered by another Changer, and when all fingers point to Ayla it's only Myrren who believes she is innocent.

If I'm completely honest I've never really been a big fan of stories involving shapeshifters, but these I liked; I loved the idea of the royal family having this gift which meant they were literally lethal, and how the Nightshades' desperation for purity has led them to breed with another so much that now only Florentyn, Myrren and Ayla remain.

I would have liked to know a little more about how the people felt about the royals, though. I could never quite tell if the Nightshades were popular or not; many of the people seemed to dislike Ayla because she had a human mother, but I was surprised that so many of the population would have held that against her. Wouldn't they have been pleased to see someone a little more like them within the royal family?

There were a few things about Darkhaven that I found a little off, the tone being one of them. Parts of the story felt as though it was aimed at a YA or younger audience - there was quite a bit of blushing when people were accused of liking someone else - and then suddenly BAM! Sex scene. It was a little jarring, though I did appreciate that Smith didn't shy away from the darker aspects of her world and the people in it; particularly the scene in which the villainous Travers visits a brothel.

I also sometimes felt as though the narrative and the characters were at odds with one another. The narrative would say something about one of the characters, such as how strong and capable they are, and then the character would be... useless. The character I probably had the biggest problem with was Ayla herself; she had real gumption when she stood up to her father, but then as soon as she teamed up with Caraway she became nothing but a damsel in distress and lost a lot of her agency. In fact Ayla spent a lot of the novel, which I assumed was mainly going to be about her, just sitting around and waiting for other people to solve her problems. The woman could literally turn into a powerful, fantastical creature and I wanted to see her defend herself a little more.

I did quite like her brother, Myrren - particularly how he refused to believe his sister was guilty, even when so much of the evidence pointed at her - and I really enjoyed Sorrow and Elisse, two side characters who find themselves caught up in the world of the Nightshades. I was pleasantly surprised to find queer characters in this book, one of whom is a queer sellsword no less, and I loved that Smith didn't make a big deal about their sexuality. It was treated as perfectly ordinary which is wonderful, because so many queer characters' stories seem to revolve around the fact that they're queer. I hope Smith explores these two more in future. I'd love a story about the two of them wreaking havoc and becoming pirates together, or something along those lines.

All in all Darkhaven isn't the best fantasy I've ever read, but there's a lot of potential in this world that Smith has created; in fact this book as a whole almost felt like the prequel to a book that hasn't been written yet, if that makes any sense. If you're a fan of shapeshifters and books that follow an ensemble cast of characters then I recommend checking this one out, and I hope Smith decides to flesh this world out in future!

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